1st Sunday of Advent 2014
“give us new life, and we will call upon your name” (Psalm 80:19)
What exactly is this “new life” that the Psalmist speaks of in today’s Responsory, and how can it change our present “life”? Surely it must be ultimately understood as the “new life” that Christ spoke of as Eternal Life. It is quite simply the grace of the New Covenant which transforms the baptized into a new creation as a child of God. And it gives this new creature a divine power that will transform his or her human life, if only it is allowed to work its wonders in the human heart.
The readings on this First Sunday of Advent are most interesting when seeking to understand this “new life’ longed for in the Old Testament by the faithful. In the first reading from Isaiah, we get a rather shocking view of on regenerated human nature and the kind of life that’s dominant in this condition. “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags … and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”
That text might well remind us of certain writings of Martin Luther who seems to have an Old Testament view of the New Testament creature, at least on the level of human nature itself. Men remain quite the same sinners whose good deeds are in truth “polluted rags” even under the new dispensation, and what is new in the New Covenant is reduced to God choosing not to look at their sins because of their faith in Christ. It is a profoundly Uncatholic view of the “new life” in that it leaves the external world and man’s daily life mired in sin, and the only effect of God’s grace is faith itself in the heart.
Contrast that reading with this text from St. Paul in today’s second reading. “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And then he says this, “I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way.” To be “irreproachable” and to be “enriched in every way” in the light of everything else Paul says about the moral life of the Christian, indicates that there is a radical change brought about in the human person by “the Grace of God,” and this transformation is not only internal but also external in the conduct of daily life.
This is the profoundly Catholic view that we find all through the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul. The grace of Christ and the mystery of redemption are profoundly transforming when man cooperates in this grace and in this mystery. The lives of the saints are the proof that where God’s grace is not only accepted but put into action, man’s whole life is transformed and elevated. Most of us never reach those heights of sanctity simply because of our own failure to cooperate with the manifold graces that God gives to each of us. We prefer to blame it on human nature, that this is just the way we are built, rather than admit that we have failed because we have not fully submitted to Christ and the power of his redemption.
Paul reminds us that we are “not lacking in any spiritual gift as [we] wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For Paul, the spiritual is not divorced from the flesh, that is, the physical, bodily side of human nature. Spiritual gifts are given not only to transform man internally, but they also enable us to be transformed in our external life. While they do not bring the “flesh” to it’s ultimate perfection in this life, but only in the resurrection, nonetheless, these gifts do enable man to begin to live a heavenly way of life even in this world. The actions of the truly virtuous man acting under the impulse of God’s grace are not polluted rags but truly virtuous and good actions giving glory to God.
Of course, because our “flesh” – Paul’s designation for our fallen human nature – is never totally transformed here on earth, we will always remain subject to temptations and to the possibility of sin. Even the great saints remained in this condition till death, and like us most they were never free from at least the venial sins that are so difficult to conquer in this world. But still, there is real hope for us, because there always remains the possibility of redemption and forgiveness, for the grace of God is never lacking. And we truly believe that with God’s grace, we can be kept “firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
However, we still must pay serious attention to this gentle reminder from the Gospel, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.’” Though Paul assures us that God’s grace will keep us firm to the end if we cooperate, that does not mean that we become presumptuous. We know that we often fail to cooperate, and for that reason we need this warning to stay alert and be watchful. The struggle is never over until we cross the line between time and eternity. Being watchful and staying alert is not so much a matter of looking for signs of the Lord’s imminent arrival to be our judge and reward us one way or the other. After all, in this regard we cannot really read the signs of the times all that accurately. No, what it means is that we must stay alert regarding our true spiritual condition, that we must be conscious of our great need for God’s grace, and that we never allow sin to take hold of our lives once again.
Those who faithfully participate in the divine mysteries at least at Sunday Mass and keep themselves open to the Word of God received in that setting and beyond are much more likely to be alert and watchful than those who don’t. Those who go to confession on a regular basis and keep their conscience sharp and honest are much more likely to remain alert and watchful than those who do not. None of this is a matter of high mysticism but simply the common sense of the ordinary Catholic life. Perhaps that is what Christ meant when he said “blessed are you Father for revealing these things to the merest children.” But of course even children have to pay attention if they are to understand these things.